When a British agent disappears in Beirut, MI6 enlist country-dwelling GP, Doctor Jason Love (David Niven) as a reluctant spy. Having pegged Love as “a car fetishist who isn’t giving in to middle age”, the head of MI6 (John Le Mesurier) sways him with the offer of a vintage roadster if he’ll undertake a dangerous mission. Outfitted with a pen that shoots a novocaine dart and a micro-transmitter hidden in his tooth, Love dallies briefly with his contact, stunning French model/spy Vikki (Françoise Dorléac) before reaching Beirut. Here, tangling with Libyan hitmen and double agents, Love uncovers a Soviet plot to assassinate a Libyan prince.
Though he won an Oscar for Separate Tables (1958) and appeared in classics from A Matter of Life and Death (1946) to The Guns of Navarone (1961), David Niven’s name is synonymous with frothy comedies and fluffy caper movies. Such movies may not be masterpieces but many are bright, bouncy fun and perfect viewing for a Sunday afternoon. Where the Spies Are is a curious cocktail, part gadget filled spy romp (“You probably won’t use them”, says his gizmo supplier. “But they’ll help psychologically”), deadly serious thriller (torture scenes and an exploding plane that kills sixty innocent people) and dry British wit (“I’d better get out of these pyjamas”, says Vikki. “Call me if you need any help”, replies Love. Knowing Niven - he probably meant it). Jason Love - now there’s a moniker Austin Powers would be proud of. It reminds you, sixties spy movies were so self-aware they hardly needed a spoof. Love seems pretty bemused by this spy lark and treats the whole thing as joke until innocent people start getting killed. After a slow start, the film picks up pace thanks to Val Guest’s swanky visual style and a few interesting touches like having Love’s Libyan antagonist also a GP by day, plus Nigel Davenport’s hard-drinking, Yorkshire accented secret agent.
Sixties spy movies play the Cold War as an endearing excuse for jet-setting adventures, partying in nightclubs and having sex with exotic women. Playboy Love indulges in all three, and while his gradual disillusionment with espionage games is a nice touch, overall the film meanders between the satirical tone of Our Man in Havana (1960), the playfulness of Bond and the darker aspects of The Quiller Memorandum (1966). David Niven, an ex-commando, handles himself well in action scenes, the most exciting of which involves Vicki’s fashion shoot providing cover for the assassination attempt. After saving the day, Love escapes clinging to the side of a helicopter, only to fall into the villains’ hands. The witty climax involves minor characters trying to figure out how to bring down a Soviet plane without firing a shot. Ultimately this is less lovable than Casino Royale (1967), the all-star spy spoof also headlined by David Niven and partially helmed (and co-scripted alongside his Where the Spies Are collaborator, Wolf Mankowitz) by Val Guest. The lovely Françoise Dorléac makes a fine femme fatale and tangled with spies again, alongside Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) in Billion Dollar Brain (1967). Incidentally, how many people nowadays would take a holiday in Beirut?